Category Archives: Donald Westlake novels

Fair Play: Mr. Block and The Snatch.

“I wanted to read it again. I wanted to see if maybe Kelp had a good idea after all.”

Kelp with a good idea.” He finished his Jell-O and reached for his coffee.

“Well, he was smart to bring it around to you,” she said. “He wouldn’t be able to do it right without you.”

Kelp brings a plan to me.”

“To make it work,” she said. “Don’t you see? There’s a plan there, but you have to convert it to the real world, to the people you’ve got and the places you’ll be and all the rest of it. You’d be the aw-tour.”

He cocked his head and studied her. “I’d be the what?”

“I read an article in a magazine,” she said. “It was about a theory about movies.”

“A theory about movies.”

“It’s called the aw-tour theory. That’s French, it means writer.”

He spread his hands. “What the hell have I got to do with the movies?”

“Don’t shout at me, John, I’m trying to tell you. The idea is—”

“I’m not shouting,” he said. He was getting grumpy.

“All right, you’re not shouting. Anyway, the idea is, in movies the writer isn’t really the writer. The real writer is the director, because he takes what the writer did and he puts it together with the actors and the places where they make the movie and all the things like that.”

“The writer isn’t the writer,” Dortmunder said.

“That’s the theory.”

“Some theory.”

“So they call the director the aw-tour,” she explained, “because that’s French for writer.”

“I don’t know what we’re talking about,” Dortmunder said, “but I think I’m getting caught up in it.

“Hey,” she said, “where am I?”

She could have answered the question herself.  She was, to judge from appearances, in an especially squalid shack.  The shack itself was fairly close to a highway, judging from the traffic noises.  If she had to guess, she would place the location somewhere below the southern edge of the city, probably a few hundred yards off Highway 130 near the river.  There were plenty of empty fishing shacks there, she remembered, and it was a fair bet this was one of them.

“Now just take it easy, Carole,” the thin man said.  “You take it easy and nothing’s going to happen to you.”

“You kidnapped me!”

“You just take it easy and–”

She squealed with joy.  “This is too much!  You’ve actually kidnapped me.  Oh, this is wild!  Did you call my old man yet?”

“No.”

“Will you let me listen when you do?”  She started to giggle.  “I’d give anything to see his face when you tell him.  He’ll split. He’ll just fall apart.”

They were both staring at her, open-mouthed.  The younger man said, “You sound happy about it.”

“Happy?  Of course I’m happy.  This is the most exciting thing that ever happened to me!”

“But your father–”

“I hope you soak him good,” she went on.  “He’s the cheapest old man on earth.  He wouldn’t pay a nickel to see a man go over the Falls.  How much are you going to ask?”

“Never mind,” the thin man said.

“I just hope it’s enough.  He can afford plenty.”

I should probably explain.

Not long ago, a book crossed my desk at the library.  Portraits of Murder, a hardcover collection of short stories from Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine (still very much an extant publication) which debuted in 1956, and provided many a much-needed check for Donald Westlake and his partners in crime fiction.  Many of the stories in Westlake anthologies first saw print there, and of course I checked to see if his name featured in the table of contents.  No dice.  Possibly because Mr. Westlake’s best stuff for AHMM was already spoken for, or didn’t fit the profile for whatever the editors were looking for.

But two stories by Lawrence Block, the first of which was quite near the front of the book, and was about a kidnapped child.  Well, minor.  Well, she’s seventeen.  And precocious.  And sexy.   And not to be underestimated.  It’s Block.

This brief exercise in sardonic suspense (less than ten full pages in the book) entitled The Most Unusual Snatch, appeared in the April 1967 issue.  That’s the cover up top. Next to a French edition of a 1974 Westlake novel, the identity of which my most irregular regulars shall no doubt deduce without any difficulty.  That is also about a kidnapped minor, but younger, and male, and not at all sexy, but still–precocious.  And a bane to all would-be abductors.  Well, they both read O. Henry, right?

Man, been so long since I did a synopsis here:

Carole Butler, pretty teenaged daughter of a wealthy doctor, is kidnapped by two men.  One tall skinny sourpuss named Howie who fully intends to kill her once they get the money, more or less just because he thinks that’s what you do when you kidnap somebody.  One younger (and to Carole’s eyes, not unattractive) thug named Ray, who is on the fence about killing her, and whose physical description matches up pretty well with Block’s.  (One of the most attractive things to her about him is that he’s not terribly bright, at least where females are concerned, as if any male ever has been, but there are degrees.)

As you can see up top, she’s delighted at first.  She had fantasized about faking her own kidnapping, and now it’s happened.  She hates her father (who seems besotted with her, no mother in sight, perhaps best not to inquire further), would love to see him lose his shirt getting her back.

She’s full of helpful suggestions for her not over-competent captors, even tells them dad’s got a hundred grand stashed in a safe in the basement at all times, and that he wouldn’t want the IRS to ever get wind of that, probably wouldn’t even call the cops if he got her back in one piece.  Maybe even if he didn’t, but she doesn’t intend to let it come to that.

Howie is the main problem.  Her charms won’t work on him.  But Ray’s an easy touch, wants to touch her, so they enjoy a quick canoodle while Howie’s away.  She’s scared, obviously–but enjoying the danger.  And the sex.  And calculating her odds all the while. She’s a bit crestfallen when he ties her up again afterwards (Shades of Mavis in The Rare Coin Score, published in ’67 as well–but Carole is no Mavis, and Ray’s sure as hell no Parker.)

Here’s where it gets interesting–well, it’s Block, so interesting all the way through, but I mean for my purposes, since I’m no less conniving than Carole in my own way.   The thing that worries Howie is the pick-up.  Carole doesn’t think her old man will call the cops, but if he does, they’ll be waiting to grab him when he goes to get the cash (and then what might happen to her?)  She has anticipated this wrinkle–and has the answer.  She pretends not to know where the hideout is, but says she knows the perfect spot for the transfer, if they just happen to be near the south end of town.

She told him about it–the overpass on Route 130 at the approach to the turnpike.  They could have her father drive onto the pike, toss the money over the side of the overpass when he reached it, and they could be waiting down below to pick it up.  Any cops who were with him would be stuck up there on the turnpike and they could get away clean.

“It’s not bad,” Ray said.

“It’s perfect,” Howie added.  “You thought that up all by yourself?”

“Well, I got the idea from a really super-duper movie.”

Howie is so struck with admiration for her devious criminal mind, he makes a little slip, saying it’s a shame and all, then pretends he didn’t say what they all know he just said.  She knows there’s no way she’s getting out of this thrill ride alive–Howie’s dead set on tying off loose ends. Ray’s too weak to stand up to him.

She does a brilliant job terrifying her father over the phone, making up two additional gang members, then explaining to the puzzled crooks that she’s laying a false trail for the cops.  While Howie’s off getting the cash, she talks Ray into letting her go–the idea is, they’ll make it look like she hit him from behind with the revolver butt, and got away. She’ll give phony descriptions, the police will be looking for three men and a woman, everybody wins.  Ray, possibly thinking they can meet up for more nookie later on, hands her the automatic and tells her where to hit him, make it look good.

She promptly shoots him dead with the business end.  Then the astonished Howie, returning with the loot, so elated about what he thinks is the biggest score of his career, but he was sadly mistaken there.  Then she cleans up the crime scene a bit, so nobody can connect her to it.

She hikes to a payphone (remember them?), calls dad, tells him a story about inter-gang violence, and somehow the two survivors left her alive, taking the money with them.  He comes to pick her up, sees the bodies.  He says it’s best they not call the police, too many questions.  He only gave them ten thousand (he says)–it’s just money.  All that matters is her.  She smiles, hugs him, and laughs to herself, thinking what she’s going to do with the hundred thousand she buried near the shack.

I don’t think Patricia Highsmith would have been ashamed to call this one her own.  Only  she never wrote for the pulps (got her start in comic books),  her Carole would have pretended to enjoy sex with Ray, and the father would have probably died too.  We all have our quirks.  In short, it’s a cracking good yarn in this vein, and no doubt Mr. Westlake thought so too.

So when I wrote my review of Jimmy the Kid, I didn’t know about this story, so I talked about the influence that was obvious to everyone (The Ransom of Red Chief), and the one Westlake himself wryly referenced in a piece he wrote for a 1978 anthology Brian Garfield put together; namely the kidnapping of French automotive heir Eric Peugeot, where the kidnappers used a Lionel White crime novel called The Snatchers as their blueprint, and it all worked out fine until they got their money, and started spending it.  The book hadn’t told them what to do after you get the money, since the kidnappers in the novel never reached that point.

As I observed then, Westlake’s novel ended up being about the dysfunctionally symbiotic relationship between fiction and reality; how each inspires the other, but they never do quite connect.  The kidnap victim was somewhere between the quietly fascinated (and very young) Master Peugeot, who had never really spent time with grown men before, and the western-crazed red-headed hooligan from O. Henry’s story, who made two grown men cry uncle.

It was also one of the funniest things he ever wrote, and having now reread it yet again, I’m even more inclined to think it’s a high-water mark for the Dortmunder series.

But see, I assumed the notion that the ‘victim’ would be not merely enjoying the experience but using it to his own coldly calculated advantage was Westlake’s contribution–as you can see, not necessarily so.

That Westlake read his close friend and sometimes collaborator’s story, in a magazine he himself contributed to multiple times, cannot be reasonably questioned.  Nor can the multiple confluences between the two, up to and including the means whereby the kidnappers arrange the ransom drop-off via a highway overpass, that Carole says she got from a movie, but damned if I can figure out which flick that might have been, and that reference strikes me as a bit of a wink from Mr. Block–only I don’t have the context to know who he’s winking at, or why.  (Definitely not The Master of Suspense.)

But in the story, it doesn’t quite work, does it?  If Carole’s old man knows in advance that’s the plan, and he has gone to the law, there’ll be cops lying in wait beneath the highway, as well as above.  Now as it happens, for purely self-centered reasons Carole herself foresaw, her father never did call the cops, so it all worked out fine (for her), and maybe it’s just her way of lulling her captors off guard, or she’s actually having fun planning her own kidnap, as she used to fantasize doing–but either way, it’s a plot hole, since Howie at least should spot the logical flaw that they’d have to tell Dr. Butler where to drop the money before he left the house with it.  No mention of any phone in his car.

Phones in private limos began to become a thing in the 50’s, but only the very rich had them.  Carole’s dad isn’t that flush (no chauffeur), and is clearly a bit of a skinflint anyway.  By the 70’s, they were less of a big deal, service was pretty good, and a partner in a big law firm might have one just to do business while being driven around.  Still rare enough that even the FBI didn’t have much expertise in putting a trace on one (though they would have other ways of tracing where the money went).

And so the Richard Stark of Dortmunder’s universe writes a novel called Child Heist, that Andy Kelp discovers doing a short stretch in a county lock-up.   In this ersatz escapade, Parker and his cohorts figure out how to make the highway drop work for them–find a vantage point where they can watch for limos entering Manhattan, scope out one that is regularly transporting a rich kid in and out of the city, that also has a mobile phone line. Then tell whoever’s coughing up the ransom to use that car when setting out with the money.  They’ll get in touch along the way.

(It’s never explained how they got the number, since that chapter of the nonexistent novel isn’t included in Jimmy the Kid) but given the relatively small number of mobile lines in a given area, probably not that hard, and why quibble if you’re having fun?)

The cops won’t have enough time to get their Duckbundys lined up (if you read the book, you’ll see what I did there), and by the time they figure out what’s happening, the gang will have the money, and return the kid unharmed, because that way the law doesn’t come after them as hard and parents don’t write angry letters to ‘Richard Stark.’  Another perfect score by Parker!

(Except I have to wonder why the fictional Parker of Dortmunder’s dimension doesn’t have problems with double-dealing accomplices, lousy drivers, unstable significant others, unforeseeable snafus, etc.  Nothing goes wrong, everybody does his job right.  It sounds kind of humdrum and routine, just another day at the office, a clockwork kidnap, but that’s what Kelp loves about it.  And Westlake loves sending up his own alter-ego.)

So this fixes the problem in Block’s story, while creating many more to throw in the path of Dortmunder & Co. Whatever seems straighforward in Parker’s world is fraught with frustration in Dortmunder’s.  Like what if the frightened father is also a confirmed workaholic, and you didn’t tell him to keep the line free?

At the Burger King, Murch’s Mom dialled the operator, and yelled, “I want to call a mobile unit in a private car!”

“Well, you don’t have to yell about it,” the operator said.

“What?”

“You have trouble on your line,” the operator said. “Hang up and dial again.”

“What? I can’t hear you with all these motorcycles!”

“Oh,” said the operator. “You want to call a mobile unit?”

“What?”

“Do you want to call a mobile unit?”

“Why do you think I’m putting up with all this?”

“Do you have the number?”

“Yes!”

Harrington was saying. “Now in the matter of that prospectus. I think our posture before the SEC is that while the prospectus did speak of home sites, it does not at any point say anything about a community. A community would necessarily imply the existence of available water. A home site would not. Country retreat, weekend cottage, that sort of thing. Have Bill Timmins see what he can root up by way of precedents.”

“Yes, sir,” said the secretary.

“Then call Danforth in Oklahoma and tell him that Marseilles crowd just will not budge on the three-for-two stock swap. Tell him my suggestion is that we threaten to simply bow out on the railroad end. of it and carry our venture capital elsewhere. If he approves, try and arrange a phone conference with Grandin for nine-thirty tomorrow morning, New York time. If Danforth has a problem, give him my home number, and tell him I should be there in, oh, two hours at the very most.”

“Yes, sir,” said the secretary.

“But the line’s busy!” the operator said.

“Well, try again!” Murch’s Mom said.

(I half-suspect Mr. Westlake scanned some of the Get Smart novels produced in the 60’s by William Johnston, which at times were even funnier than the TV show, featured as a recurring character the snarky operator Max had to deal with whenever he made a call via footwear, and demonstrated how a phone that traveled around with you might not always be an unqualified asset to your endeavors.  But you know, great minds.)

And as is the case with any tightly plotted scheme, even the slightest deviation leads to chaos.   (Also the case with tightly plotted train schedules, as I learned during a trip to Germany.)  A comedy of errors ensues, but I’ve written about that already.

I think the money transfer is Westlake’s way of crediting Block, since nobody who had read both stories could easily miss the parallel there–a sort of backhanded credit, inadmissible in a court of law (since Block probably got the idea from somewhere else also).

But the primary point of influence is between Carole Butler and Jimmy Harrington, who are not at all similar in age, gender, or characterization, but who share nonetheless several key attributes, not least of which a desire to not merely escape their abductors, but to profit from their credulity.  (And of course, each ends up with the ransom money from daddy, though Jimmy by somewhat more honorable means, and at least he left a tip.)

It all plays out very differently, since Westlake’s novel isn’t written for a magazine that specializes in grisly twists, and he will have need of Dortmunder & Co. in future; and it should go without saying nobody in the Dortmunder Gang is having sex with a twelve year old (or anyone, at this stage of the series.)

But for all the cunning variations on a theme, the influence simply can’t be denied.  It is, as they say in over-formulaic British crime fiction, a fair cop.  Westlake borrowed directly from Block.

So.  Did Block know about it?  Did Westlake ask him if it was okay?  Did these men who used to write pseudo-porn together, taking turns writing chapters, routinely steal from each other, and wait gleefully to see if the pilfery was detected?  Remember, these guys both wrote so much, it would be easy for either to forget a story tossed off in a hurry to pay for a kid’s braces or whatever.  But that seems a mite unprofessional for these two.  Is there some other explanation?

I have one–see that little exchange between Dortmunder and May up top?  The first big gag of the novel is that Kelp not only brings an idea for a heist to Dortmunder, but that this time he’s brought a plan to go with it–which is supposed to be Dortmunder’s purview.  Dortmunder is most disgruntled over this.  “Kelp brings a plan to me.”

So suppose Mr. Westlake was grousing over a few bourbons at some disreputable bar & grill (maybe there was a back room) that he was having story problems with this new Dortmunder, having already had the idea of a comic kidnapping inspired in equal part by O. Henry and the Peugeot case, but that’s just an idea for a caper, not the caper itself.  He’s got the premise. Not the plan. Where’s the hook?

And Mr. Block, ever a generous colleague, as well as a competitive one, brought up his own humble effort in this sub-sub-genre (since his kidnapping was also comedic, however dark).  I have speculated that the Dortmunder/Kelp dynamic is at least partly based on the long informal partnership of Westlake and Block.  And while there is some of Kelp in Westlake, far more of him is Dortmunder.  So did his Kelp bring a plan to him?   Hmm.

Reading both Block and Westlake, one must always be aware that each scribe read the other’s output assiduously, as did others in their circle.  Westlake penciled in many a gag aimed not at the funny bones of his readership, but those of his poker-faced poker buddies.  See if he could get a rise out of them.  I’m guessing he did pretty well.  And they got a few chuckles in return.

But in this case, being first doesn’t count for much.  The Most Unusual Snatch is a nifty little short that got anthologized a few times.  Jimmy the Kid turned out to be a bit of a phenom, much like its title character.  DonaldWestlake.com lists no fewer than eighteen editions in seven languages (good bet that’s not all).  And there were three film adaptations–Italian, German, and the one with the kid from Diff’rent Strokes.  (Probably they’re all terrible, but it’s the check that counts.)  Not for nothing did Westlake dedicate this one to his agent Henry Morrison, who probably badgered him into doing more Dortmunder books.

I wanted to write this as a companion piece to my previous article, about how Suzuki & Co. stole from Westlake (and a fair few other pulpish writers, no doubt) to make a surrealistic crime movie.  Much as I don’t think Westlake would have been offended, it was still unacknowledged borrowing (had to be, since there was no money in the budget to buy up the adaptation rights, or even time to negotiate for them across an ocean and a language barrier).  And of course these two masters of noir never met, so there was no winking going on in either direction.

But the reason I’m sure Westlake would have given Suzuki a pass had he known was that he knew all good storytellers steal.  It’s how you do it that matters; whether you add something of yourself to the mix.  Suzuki and his collaborators did that, and so did Westlake here (rather better, I think).  Stolen plot elements can become remarkably personal expressions, so long as you don’t get all your loot from the same bank.  Ideas are just building blocks.  Put them together in your own way, and see what happens.  Make it an unusual snatch.

Advertisements

35 Comments

Filed under comic crime novels, Donald Westlake novels, Jimmy The Kid, Parker Novels

Parker at the Movies, Part 4: Mr Suzuki and The Stark Homage.

His hand on the knob, she called his name.  He turned around, questioning, irritated, and saw the Police Positive in her hand.  He just had time to remember that it had to be either Chester or Mal–the two who’d been given the revolvers–when she pulled the trigger and a heavy punch in his stomach drove the breath and the consciousness out of him.

It was his belt buckle that saved him.  Her first shot had hit the buckle, mashing it into his flesh.  The gun had jumped in her hand, the next five shots all going over his falling body and into the wood of the door.  But she’d fired six shots at him, and she’d seen him fall, and she couldn’t believe that he was anything but dead.

He awoke to heat and suffocation.  They’d set fire to the house.

I shouldn’t need to tell you.

Rojini has offered cease-fire agreement in Paakaa. However the truce was broken by the traitor of the organization. But the son of man aiming secretly position of boss took the gold, Paakaa you charge the brunt of the attack, increase the fire, strikes back to unscrupulous traitor! Villain Paakaa and his friends, Ru Osoikaka mighty criminal organization. Premier epic yelling prime all the charm of the series.

Promotional text from the first Japanese edition of Butcher’s Moon, run through an online software, which only goes to show that some things are gained in translation.

Japanese film is yet another thing I loved a long time before I ever heard of Donald Westlake. And as I now discover, much to my delight, I can conclusively link up the two.  (This will be a short piece.  Hopefully get the motor running again.)

Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, Kobayashi–I’ll admit I tended to favor the Jidaigeki, or period costume dramas, often dealing with the heavily mythologized samurai class, and creatively rebelling against those myths.  My first love was the Kaiju Eiga , naturally–what other Japanese flicks is an American kid going to know in the 60’s and 70’s?  Crush the grown-ups, Godzilla!)  I know many other names besides those three above. But I was never enough of a maven to know them all.  Too rich a vein to ever fully mine out, unless you’re Quentin Tarantino, which I am decidedly not.

You branch out over time–I’ve gotten a fair few kicks from Takashi Miike, ‘J-Horror’ being something many in the west have learned to warily love (and assiduously copy) in the 21st, and the variety of stuff available on cable and Region 1 DVD has kept expanding.  Japanese film isn’t what it once was, of course, but what is?

Miike also did Yakuza films, of which I’ve only seen the intentionally over the top and confusing Ichi the Killer, which being a David Lynch fan, I had no trouble following.  Well, maybe a little, but it didn’t bother me.  You’re either along for the ride or not, right?  Last chance to leap out of the getaway car.  Here we go…..

So TCM has recently been showing a lot of Japanese crime films (you can call them noir if you like, everybody else does) from the late 50’s and 60’s, usually in the wee hours of the night, but that’s what DVR is for.  Many of these were produced not by Toho or Toei, but by what you might call in Hollywood terms, a poverty row studio, Nikkatsu.  Founded in 1912, it opted in the post-war era to make the Yakuza thriller and the police drama its twin wheelhouse, because they couldn’t afford to hire the best samurai stars, and didn’t really know how to make good monster suits and tiny model cities for them to stomp on.  If you can’t afford the top names, make your own, right?  That’s what they did.  Worked for Warner Bros in the early 30’s (didn’t work out quite as well for Nikkatsu).

One of their top stars made himself, you might say–Joe Shishido, sometimes called Joe the Ace, though I struggle not to refer to him as Gerbiljaw.   A conventionally handsome man with both talent and ambition, he decided he needed something to make him stand out from the farflung field of fashion plates (and didn’t want to play cheesy romantic leads), so he had plastic surgery to enlarge his cheekbones, leading to a face looking like– well……a chipped chunk of concrete with eyes of flawed onyx? At some angles, chipmunk would be more like it, but he usually had directors who knew how to point their cameras.

screen-shot-2014-03-06-at-2-10-32-am

Regardless of whether the new look caused vibrations above the nylons among female filmgoers (definitely had that effect on women in his films), Shishido became the definitive star of the Yakuza Eiga.  And he frequently worked with a creative young director named Seijun Suzuki, who just recently passed away at the age of 93.

At times, the studio heads wanted Suzuki to be less creative.  He would actually trim his budgets, just to get them to leave him alone to do what he wanted, and as so often happens with geniuses, this made the films even more creative (and therefore, more problematic for the studio).  He claimed it was never his conscious intent to be surrealistic.  It just came out that way.

He’s been written about a lot.  Many a cult western filmmaker has waxed elegaic.  I’m not a film critic, and I haven’t seen most of his movies (and I have to admit, sometimes I fast-forward the ones I record off TCM, when he’s wanking around too much).  So let’s cut to the chase, since this blog ain’t The Suzuki Scenario.  Came a point when Suzuki souped up the motorcycle too much for his own good.

It was when he got brought onto a project about a steely-eyed assassin working for the Yakuza, with Shishido playing the surly strong-willed hitter, like he’d already done a few times before.  Joe had the right face (paid well for it).

According to the Wikipedia article for Branded to Kill, the studio hated the original script, brought Suzuki in to rewrite it, then told him they couldn’t understand the script he handed in (a not-uncommon complaint), but there was no time for a do-over, because release schedules. They told him to go ahead and film it.  Even though the auteur theory was by this time a thing, Suzuki had no such pretensions, and was simply following orders–he just followed them his own way.  A true rebel doesn’t have to say no–he just does it.

Suzuki didn’t believe in storyboarding.  He wrote and directed by what I think could be justly called The Push Method, which is probably harder than it looks, and in his line of business, there wasn’t much time for rewrites.

He would often come up with ideas for a scene the day before shooting it, or while shooting it.  He did as few takes as possible, exposing the bare minimum of celluloid, which he said was a habit he picked up in the days after the war, when film stock was hard to come by, but maybe also because he didn’t want the studio to recut the film in a way he didn’t like (is any of this sounding eerily familiar to long-time readers here?)  25 days allotted for shooting, three for post-production, but he finished editing the sucker in one.  (Now don’t talk about efficiency, that’s racist.)

It was released on June 15th, 1967.  Just shy of nine weeks before John Boorman’s Point Blank premiered in San Francisco.  There is not the slightest chance either film impacted the other.  And yet, they somehow share a subplot and a scene. As well as the distinction of being revered visionary cult films that bombed to hell at the box office because audiences couldn’t figure out what the fuck was going on in them, but that’s just something that happened a lot with studio films in the 60’s and 70’s.   The subplot and the scene–that’s a bit different.

See, in Branded to Kill, Goro Hanada, #3 hitman in Japan, has a wife named Mami, who likes to talk about how terrifying her husband is, then have wild sex with him after he smells pots of cooking rice (don’t ask).  A conniving Yakuza boss starts chatting her up, and she is aware that Goro has been lustfully eyeing another woman (played by half-Indian actress, Annu Mari, and I for one don’t blame him), and she’s particularly concerned when he blows a major job because a butterfly landed on his rifle barrel (lousy special effect, but that’s hardly the point of anything).

Goro is planning to leave the country, while Mami lies in bed, holding a gun, looking scared.  To save her own lovely skin (of which we see a lot in the movie, which broke new ground in onscreen nudity), she shoots Goro in the stomach (just once, with an automatic) and flees in a panic, while he lies on the floor, seemingly dead.  For no rationally comprehensible reason, we see flames spring up outside the window immediately after her naked form scampers out the door.  Well, the film isn’t trying to be rational.

Goro isn’t dead, though.  The bullet glanced off his belt buckle (Suzuki does a close up of the bullet hitting it, just so we’ll know).  He’s hurt, but alive–and enraged.  Off-kilter.  Bad stuff ensues.

Yeah.

Maybe this is a good time to mention that The Hunter (aka Human Hunting Parker/ Villain) was published by Hayakawa in 1966?  You can see the cover up top, along with a written dedication from the translator, Nobumitsu Kodaka, who seems to have sent Westlake a copy in 1975.  (These images courtesy of the Official Westlake Blog.)

So you know, just because you’re a brilliant artist doesn’t mean you don’t steal from other artists sometimes.  As Akira Kurosawa might have said to Sergio Leone if they ever met.  I don’t see anything else in the film specifically from the work of Richard Stark (who doesn’t make organization men his heroes, however surly they might be). I don’t think Westlake would have blamed Suzuki at all–he was known to lift the odd few things himself, though he was rarely this obvious about it.  (Godard would be another matter, since that involved welshing on a debt.)

What’s interesting is how both Suzuki and Boorman independently decided they had to justify the wife’s treacherous behavior, and have her be attracted to a criminal colleague of his  (who isn’t all that attractive), be dissatisfied with her marriage–she couldn’t just shoot her heinous hubby because she panicked under pressure, saw no other way out.  (Played out about the same way in Payback).

She has to be a willing pawn, I suppose, to justify what’s coming later, so the anti-hero doesn’t seem too anti-heroic for taking revenge (and of course, nobody ever goes with the face mutilation thing from the novel).  But Suzuki, who was never much inclined to pull his punches, doesn’t make his two-timing missus take the coward’s way out–hey, remember the floating hair thingy at the end of the climactic sword fight in Kill Bill Vol I?

(Mami saying they’re beasts, as she does earlier in the film, is also interesting, as if Suzuki is picking up on Parker’s lupine nature, but if so, he’s not seeing it as a positive.)

But understand, it’s not just one scene–there’s a build-up to that moment where the film goes full DaDa on us (because Goro is going mad), and it all clearly stems from the twisted relationship between Parker and Lynn in Westlake’s novel, that moment of betrayal that first introduces us to that strange mental state Parker goes into when someone betrays his trust.

Only Goro, while genuinely dangerous, is in a very different type of story, and doesn’t know himself the way Parker does, which is Suzuki’s point, fair play to him.  And the intent, as with Point Blank, is to send up the whole genre, deconstruct it (I doubt Suzuki used that term).  And, in many ways, to make a fool of the rugged hitman, cut him down to size, even while mythologizing him. As Westlake in a sense tried to do with Parker when he wrote what became The Hot Rock–only to realize it wouldn’t work.

Do I agree this is a work of visual genius, that influenced generations of filmmakers?  It’s every bit of that, whether I think so or not.  Do I think it’s a great film?  Ehhhh…..remind me what I said about Point Blank when I wrote about it?  Only that had Lee Marvin, and he didn’t need any surgical enhancements, did he?

There are some pretty serious second act problems.  I feel that Suzuki missed a great opportunity with the Annu Mari character, a female assassin, ice cold, deadly, and oddly vulnerable at the same time, who is written out far too quickly, and replaced by a less interesting (and far less alluring) male counterpart to Goro whose primary claim to fame is that he never uses the toilet when he has to go, because that would be unprofessional.

The film is not long, but seems endless, as bad dreams invariably do.  There’s a bit too much self-conscious posing for the camera, a bit too little attempt to make the nonsense make sense (as the best work of David Lynch does, for example).   It’s got the makings of a masterpiece, and in a certain limited sense it is (as is Point Blank), but not in the sense I’m looking for when I decide whether to call a film that or not.

Because a movie theater isn’t an art gallery.  In a movie theater, story matters, and stories have messages, however nuanced and ambiguous–and as with Point Blank, which I also admire from a visual standpoint, I am not at all sure this film has any message to convey other than “Isn’t this cool?”  It definitely is, but I need more.

Suzuki was on the cusp of a new style, but he hadn’t quite figured it out, and because of a famous legal battle with Nikkatsu that put his career on hold, he never really got the chance until much later, by which time his meandering muse had largely deserted him (studio suits can be annoying, but for some artists, they can be a necessary irritant).  It’s never easy to be in the vanguard, and I will say, I want to see more of his early work; what he constructed before he started with the deconstruction.  I don’t begrudge him one bit of his belated recognition as a cinematic trailblazer.

But remember, they just handed him this project, he shot it in 25 days, edited it in one, got paid a whole lot less than Boorman, and film buffs are still studying it. Maybe someday they’ll find a plot in there somewhere (and be shot for their pains).

Nobody has to look for the plot in Westlake’s novel–it comes hunting for you, and good luck trying to escape it.  It’s been hunting us down since 1962.

Cutting to the proverbial chase, Branded to Kill is not an uncredited  adaptation of The Hunter, but was sure as bloody hell directly consciously influenced by it.  Coincidence my Aunt Fumiko.  An unquestionable match.  Still and all, if anybody wants to question it, here I am, waiting.  There’s no butterfly on my rifle barrel.  Sayonara for now, suckers.

 

15 Comments

Filed under Donald Westlake, Donald Westlake film adaptations, Donald Westlake novels, Parker film adaptations, Parker Novels, Richard Stark, Uncategorized

Belated Reminder: A Westlake classic, Traveling once more.

Brother Clemence spoke first. “There’s no record of the lease with the County Clerk,” he told us. “I swear to you that when I expressed surprise at that, an ancient clerk there snapped at me, ‘Don’t you know there was a war on?’ Meaning the Revolution. Most of New York City was held by the British under martial law throughout the Revolution, and many deeds and leases and other legal papers just didn’t get properly recorded. A transfer of property would eventually have found its way into the records, but a simple rental doesn’t create as many legal necessities.”

Brother Dexter said, “But the lease is still binding, isn’t it, even if it isn’t recorded?”

“So long as one party retains a copy of it and wishes to enforce it,” Brother Clemence said, “it’s still binding. But I just wish I could get a look at the wording of the thing. Brother Oliver, still no luck with our copy?”

“I spent all day searching for it,” Brother Oliver said mournfully, and the dust smudges on his cheeks and the tip of his nose bore silent witness. “I’ve searched everywhere, I was even in the attic. I went through every page of VEILED FOR THE LORD, just in case it had been put in there by mistake.”

Brother Clemence squinted, “VEILED FOR THE LORD?”

“Brother Wesley’s fourteen-volume novel,” Brother Oliver explained, “based on the life of Saint Jude the Obscure.”

“I’ve never actually read that,” Brother Hilarius commented. “Do you recommend it?”

“Not wholeheartedly,” Brother Oliver told him.

Brother Clemence, who was usually a jovial galumphing St. Bernard sort of man, could become a bulldog when his attention was caught, and this time his attention had been caught for fair. “I need that lease,” he said, his heavy white-haired head thrusting forward over the refectory table as though he would chomp the missing lease in his jaws. “I need to look at it, I need to see the wording.

Absent-minded as I am, it had quite slipped my mind that Brothers Keepers was due out in early February, courtesy of Hard Case Crime. (Well, it was a Hard Case edition of a never-before-published Westlake novel that told us in grim detail how unreliable a tool memory can be.)

As is their usual custom there, the book is available both as an e-edition and a reasonably priced paperback, complete with misleadingly sexy cover.  In fairness, there is intercourse other than the social in this one, and at least they got Ms. Flattery’s hair color right (though she doesn’t look very Irish to me with that golden tan–must be the Puerto Rican sunshine).

I quite like this art, which covers the bases, story wise.  My heart will always belong to the original M. Evans dust jacket, which puts full emphasis on the monastery and its dowdy yet doughty denizens.  But that more contemplative approach, appropriate though it may be, doesn’t work for a crime novel in paperback.

Begging the question–is this a crime novel?  I would assume somebody at Hard Case must have posed the question at some point.  A few people get punched.  A few documents are pilfered.  A foiled mugging in Central Park.  A monastic vow of chastity is repeatedly and pleasurably broken.

The only malefactor of note in the piece is an avaricious and unapologetic New York City real estate developer, seeking to destroy a beautiful old building to put up an ugly glass tower, caring not that this will destroy the lives of a handful of monks whose order is so obscure, one suspects the Vatican has no inkling of its existence.

A very white collar crime novel, one must conclude.  But that is, after all, the sort of crime many of us are most concerned with of late, or ought to be.

I go back and forth over which of Westlake’s comic novels that isn’t about Dortmunder is my personal favorite, but I always come back to this, and have long lamented its absence from the ranks of books in print.

Precisely because it’s so hard to slot, it’s been hard to find a lasting home for it, and all glory and praise to Charles Ardai & Co. for returning it to us, like an illuminated manuscript of the deed to a long-neglected sanctum sanctorum of the soul, where the primary object of contemplation is human folly–and the joys of brotherhood.  And, of course, the perilous possibilities of Travel.  Broadens the mind, they do say.  But that depends very much on what spirit it is undertaken in.

Of Mr. Westlake’s problem books, the two outstanding absentees are now Adios Scheherazade and A Likely Story.  I have been known to put a bug in the ear of the odd publisher about their absence from the rolls.  And it would take a very odd publisher indeed to take a chance on either, but what joy to see them breathe again.  To present their problems to us–which are still our problems today.  We need to take another look at them. We need to see the wording.

Sorry for the long absence–I’ve got things in mind, and if I can just relocate my mind (which has been absent, as mentioned), I’ll get to them.  In the meantime, I see The Official Westlake Blog has found a few covers for this one I had not heretofore encountered–and my fidelity to the M. Evans dustjacket is now sorely beset–

brothers_keepers_japan1_1

From Japan–and I think I’m not the only one who recognizes this is the same unsung genius who did several Dortmunder covers I’ve showcased here in past.  (It’s so breathtakingly wonderful, I don’t even care that Eileen’s hair is the wrong color.)

The title translates to We Are Salvation to the Saints, and I’m just now realizing how well the story would translate to a Buddhist monastery or Shinto Shrine, threatened by development in Tokyo or Osaka.  Now that would have been a great Kurosawa film.

Here’s the Rivages edition–

brothers_keepers_france1_1

Droll indeed, and Rivages continues, in its own modern way, the classic tradition of Le Série Noire–ie, never pay for original cover art if you can possibly avoid it.  Never mind if it fits the story or  not!  It is noir, ne c’est pas?  Non?  Read the book and stop complaining!  Hopefully at least they shelled out for a decent translation.  But Rivages publishes more Westlake than any other house I’m aware of.

brothers_keepers_5

Same title used by an Argentinian publisher, but I believe this edition hails from Spain.   And I don’t like it one bit, but I like that the birthplace of so many religious orders has its own edition.  Curious–does the term Brothers Keepers (derived from a familiar children’s taunt) not translate into any language other than English?  Well, at least there’s the actual English–

brothers_keepers_uk2_1

brothers_keepers_uk2_2

Good old Hodder and Staunton.  Not a bad job at all.  But I’m still all agog over the Japanese cover. How many more Westlakes did this luminary illuminate?

Hey, if there’s anybody out there who can read Japanese–can you see the name of the artist?  I think I want to erect a shrine to him. Or her.

brothers_keepers_japan1_2

brothers_keepers_japan1_3

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some Traveling to do.  Metaphorically and literally.

20 Comments

Filed under Brothers Keepers, Donald Westlake novels, Uncategorized

Mr. Westlake and The Fuehrers

ROBERT PRATT SAT AT the typewriter and tried to ignore the call of the August sun outside his window. The air-conditioner kept this second floor study cool, but just beyond the glass summer beckoned, a sunny August Sunday that wanted no one indoors. His one concession to the season was the bottle of beer beside the typewriter on his battered desk, but the bottle too kept distracting him from the paper he was writing.

He re-read, for the tenth time, the last sentence on this page: “America is moving inexorably toward a Fuehrer, possibly by the end of this decade, certainly by the end of the century.” Did he actually believe that? Not as surely as he’d made it sound, though he did think the erosion toward an omnipotent leader was well under way and would only with great difficulty be stopped in time. Still, in any case, it would be best to copper his bets a little; he changed the period at the end of the sentence to a comma, and added, “Unless unforeseeable changes take place.”

She said, “I read his article today. The one about the Fuehrer. I hadn’t known people were thinking that way at all.”

“From the highest to the lowest,” Bradford said. “I think perhaps that’s the advantage of retirement, one can step outside the action and see it from a different perspective, not get caught by the received truths that everybody else absorbs without noticing.”

“I’d never known that was possible, to have a whole shift in the way people think, without anybody noticing.”

“Look at a ten-year-old fashion magazine,” Bradford said, “and you’ll see the same thing operating on a different level. The clothes will look foolish to you, you’d be embarrassed to be seen wearing any of them. Try to remember how much you admired clothing like that at the time, and you can’t do it. The memory is gone. You know you must have liked that clothing, you can remember owning things very much like it, but to remember your attitude then is impossible.”

I was born in Brooklyn, New York, on July 12th, 1933, and I couldn’t digest milk.  Not mother’s milk, nor cow’s milk, nor goat’s milk, not anybody’s milk.  Nor could I digest any of the baby formulas then available.  Everything they fed me at the hospital ran right through me, leaving mere traces of nutrients behind.  On the fourth day, the doctors told my parents to prepare for the worst: “He’ll be dead by his eighth day.” Just another squirming little bundle of muscle and heat that didn’t make it.

Then, on the fifth day, the doctors learned about an experimental baby formula, based on soybeans, nearing the end of its trials in a hospital in Manhattan.  There was nothing else to try, so phone calls were made, the formula was shipped from Manhattan to Brooklyn, and for the first time in my young life I found something I could tolerate.

If I’d been born three months earlier, I was dead in eight days.  If I’d been born in Baltimore, or Boston, much less some small town somewhere, or anywhere else in the world, I was dead in eight days.  Only a surprise ending saved my life.

From the unpublished memoirs of Donald E. Westlake, excerpted in The Getaway Car. 

July 12, 1933 (Wednesday)

The Vienna newspaper Oesterreichische Abendblatt published a three-page story claiming proof that Adolf Hitler was “directly descended on his mother’s side” from a Jewish family in Czechoslovakia, and that there were at least ten Jewish persons named Hitler in the city of Polná. Alexander Basch, the recently deceased city registrar, had identified a sister of Hitler’s grandmother as having been a Jew who moved from Polna to Vienna when both places were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Born: Donald E. Westlake,75, American mystery author with 65 novels under 16 pseudonyms; (d. 2008)

From Wikipedia Timeline (both entries for this date contain questionable assertions). 

Imagine you grew up knowing two things about yourself:

1)If you’d been born a bit earlier, or in a different place, you’d have starved to death in eight days.

2)While you were being kept alive by capricious arbitrary events, threadbare plot contrivances that would cause any self-respecting editor to throw his/her hands up in despair, a WWI corporal with a dysfunctional personality and some problematic ideas claimed absolute power over a major western nation.

The NSDAP became the only legal party in Germany on July 14th, 1933–same date they created the first modern eugenics law–basically,  full-on Nazification took place during Westlake’s gestation and early infancy.

(I don’t write any of this stuff, you know.  Don’t look at me.)

Now of course, you can’t be born at all in this world without barging in on some catastrophe or other, since the thing about history is it never stops, even if you ask it nicely.  But this is, you must admit, a higher order of coincidence than usual.  All the more since Westlake spent much of his life writing about the never-ending battle between the independents and the organization men–as good a term as any for Nazi, though not all organization men are Nazis.  It’s a large category.

And that may not be coincidence at all.  Westlake’s attitude towards authority probably gelled quite early in life.  Plausible it was formed, in part, by his growing awareness of what was going on in the world when he first entered it.  We look for patterns, and they’re always there.  Maybe we just imagine them.  I’m sure that’s it.

As I said when I first reviewed Ex Officio, his only novel centered around a politician, Westlake will not be remembered as a political writer.  He nonetheless approached the subject on a regular basis, most often by circuitous pathways. If he’d taken a different path in life…..

His own politics can be something of a puzzlement–a strong liberal on most social issues, such as equal rights for black people, immigrants, gays, everybody. His understanding of the way Hitler and many others used fear and distrust of outsider groups to make people act against their interests is exceptionally strong. You take away anyone else’s freedom, you imperil your own.  And nothing undermines your identity more than attacking someone else’s.

More conservative on economics, as you’d expect from someone who made his living a book at a time.  He’s distrustful of government interference in private life, to the point where he wrote an early short story that seems to indicate he thought Medicare was an infringement of American liberty.  He belonged to at least one writer’s union (probably several), but some of his later work could be interpreted as supporting ‘right to work’ laws, at least when it comes to outfits like the Teamsters.  Straddles the fence there.

He wrote an article for The Weekly Standard (RIP) that seems to be an endorsement of the way George W. Bush addressed 9/11, but this was before the Iraq War started, it was more insult than encomium, and I doubt it got him on the shortlist for any White House galas.  He seems to have mainly written it because William Kristol was a fan.  (Nobody’s all bad.  And Bill’s one of the last Never-Trumpers standing.  Welcome to the struggle, comrade.)

He may even have had some doubts about Social Security (see The Jugger), but those were expressed early in his career, when he was young and healthy (another durable pattern–even Ayn Rand accepted Social Security and Medicare–for herself–when she got old and sick and broke.)

But you’d be dead wrong to slot him as a Libertarian.  His science fiction novel, Anarchaos, which he wrote very early in his career (then went out of his way to get published at basically no profit to himself), evinces a corrosive skepticism towards Anarchist/Libertarian ideas, verging on outright derision.  You need a social structure to keep order, a strong central authority chosen by the people–if only to rebel against.  And to provide a check against perhaps the most insidious organization men of all–the CEOs.  My best summation of his standpoint towards the plague of bureaucracy (as opposed to autocracy) is that the true individualist will learn how to get around it, and the rest won’t know what to do without it.  From each according to his means….

Distrustful of the Left, disgusted by the Right, he could be disdainful towards both.  The far Left and Right he disowned without qualification–as Orwell told us, pigs is pigs, and it doesn’t matter which side of the table they sit on.

One book might be about how Corporate America quietly plotted to institute a new form of feudalism, install a sort of figurehead Democracy, while they did whatever they pleased behind the scenes; only they hadn’t reckoned on a star crossed pack of small time crooks stumbling into the path of their juggernaut, gumming up the works, buying the rest of us some time.

Another might be about how 60’s radicals who decided to work outside the system (with guns and bombs) were mainly doing it for themselves, not the people.  Acting out poorly understood identity crises, making other people die for their ideas, drawing out the bloody farce a few years too long.  A comedy that never really finishes, since there’s always a new cast warming up in the wings.

A mixed bag politically was Mr. Westlake.  Not reliably in the corner of anyone with power, because he assumed no one in power, no matter how pure their intentions, would ever be reliably in our corner.  Power over others corrupts your intentions, your ideas, your ethics, your very sense of self.  Lord Acton would concur.  As would Karl Popper, who said the question of Democracy isn’t who should have the power, but how to prevent anyone from getting too much.  Negative Liberty, which then allows Positive Liberty its greatest practical range for the greatest number and variety of individuals.  (In theory.)  If the individual has no rights, nobody does, since the ‘masses’ are just a collection of individuals. 

But for all of these potential threats to liberty that Mr. Westlake wrote about (around, really), he avoided dealing with the one threat he most feared–the one whose shadow he was born in.  Suppose people just handed over their liberty to the least trustworthy trustee imaginable, because they were tired of it–weary of the sordid scrum of politics, the clamor of short-sighted interest groups, looking for what comes after politics–enforced unanimity.  Which we somehow always think will favor us.

Well, he wrote mainly crime fiction, set mainly in the present day, mainly in America.  There wasn’t much opportunity to write about dictatorship.  We’ve never had one.  Not yet. Anyway, Sinclair Lewis did that already.  (And Philip Roth, later on.)

Why did Westlake, when the story was pitched to him out of the blue, instantly agree to write a train heist story set in Idi Amin’s Uganda, start out to make it comic, then turn it into a somber rumination on the atrocities of that regime, set against the flawed humanity and basic decency of the people who set out to steal from it?  Because the notion that one man could have so much power over so many both fascinated and revolted him, and his heroes were always individualists–individualism being the bane of autarchs everywhere.  (He goes out of his way to mention that the assault that ultimately toppled Amin came through a place in Tanzania called West Lake.)

Tinpot foreign dictators appear throughout his work, but are not covered in any depth, because the form he’s writing in doesn’t allow for it–and he’s got other points to get across.  Still, you can hear him thinking–“If there was a Hitler in America, or a Stalin, or an Amin, or a Castro, or a Pinochet?–where would Parker be then?  Where would Dortmunder be?  Where would I be?”  Squarely behind the eight ball, that’s where.

Under an absolutist state, he’d probably have to switch over to westerns or science fiction–something based in settings too abstracted from daily life to be taken as a commentary on it. Hitler loved those Karl May adventures with Old Shatterhand and Winnetou, which have somehow never caught on in the English speaking world.  No evidence the worst criminal in history ever liked crime fiction, which actually had a pretty good run in Weimar Germany, Fritz Lang and such.  Degenerate art!  Into the flames with it!

Just to show that all historical analogies have their limits, I must now concede that Herr Trump’s tastes are different (can you imagine him sitting through an entire Wagnerian  opera, or any opera?)  He loves crime fiction.  Not in print form,  since that would entail reading, but movies. The Godfather and Goodfellas in particular.  Stories that emphasize honor among thieves, a central authority figure overseeing their efforts, a code of omerta, and of course these stories deal a lot with traitors and stoolpigeons, and their various unpleasant fates. And lots of willing wayward women, we should not forget.

These are stories written from the perspective of gangsters, and on some level sympathizing with them, though one suspects Mr. Trump has focused more on the seamy glamor of the milieu than the morals behind the stories–which isn’t that uncommon.

I’ve mentioned before Westlake’s attitude towards criminal syndicates–just another system designed to undermine individuality.  How often he writes stories where the lone wolves of crime take on the organization men, take them out.  He never romanticizes the mob.  A mob is the thing he most devoutly wishes not to be a part of.   But he would still have found it interesting that America’s first potential Fuehrer so self-consciously modeled himself after Mafiosi, real and fictive. That’s a distinctly American approach to autocracy.

See, we all know what foreign dictators look like, their speech patterns, how they comport themselves in public, because we’ve seen the movies, the newsreel footage, and whatever the hell it was Leni Riefenstahl was doing.  The part they never show is how the dictator got all that power to begin with.  Westlake’s dictators, fictive or real, don’t address that point.  There isn’t time, and there isn’t a market (he couldn’t even find many takers for Kahawa, which is a bloody good book).

Closest any major movie ever came to showing Hitler’s origins was Max, where John Cusack’s Jewish art dealer tries to defang young Adolph by making a successful artist of him.  (Might have worked–and it’s not as if bad art never sells).  Hardly anyone has seen that film.  We prefer stories about his downfall–better meme fodder.

So in Mr. Westlake’s body of work, we see either aspiring despots, or fully realized ones–never do we see that transitional moment that links the two.  Because he writes stories set in the present, mainly in America, and It Can’t Happen Here–Sinclair Lewis’ title was closer to reality than the book itself, which imagined some populist demagogue like Huey Long defeating FDR, then installing a corrupt racist anti-democratic regime, that starts to crumble when its promises all turn out to be lies.  Oddly familiar now, but still overstated, off-balance.  Like one of those novels where the Axis won WWII or the South won the Civil War.  Could it happen?  Sure.  Would it?  Probably not.

Truth is, Democracy was too well-rooted here by Lewis’ time to be undone in a single stroke.  Still is, thankfully.   But nobody runs forever.  How might our run come to an end?

In one novel, Westlake imagined precisely that–without showing it.   And he, like Lewis, was reacting to recent events.  Extrapolating from them.  Less dramatically, and I would argue, more presciently.

His argument, in brief, is that Left and Right are collaborators in the downfall of Democracy.  That each is dissatisfied with the compromises inherent to that system of government, looking for an end run around it.  When enough people stop believing in incremental change, you get dictatorship and revolutionary change, which ends up not working out as advertised.

And this is a fair summation of what happened in Germany, under Hitler.  The Far Right took power with the unwitting help of the Far Left, which then took power when the Far Right was done in by an alliance dominated by centrists, only to collapse under its own weight 46 years later.  And now the former command center of the Far Left is helping the Far Right in America take power.  (I swear I don’t write any of this.)

But see, this is me talking, much more than Westlake.  Trying to understand what’s going on around me, find the pattern, rationalize the irrational, which is comforting, if also disquieting.  This isn’t the Fred Fitch Review.  What was it Westlake was trying to say with an odd cul de sac subplot in a political thriller few people read then, and even fewer now (though it is evailable)?  A subplot I gave extremely short shrift to in my review of that thriller, it should be noted–because at the time I thought it was a bit of a red herring.  Now I’m not so sure.

In Ex Officio, Robert Pratt, football player turned history professor, love interest for the heroine, has stumbled on a new idea, inspired by the Presidential election of 1968 (still fresh in the memory when Westlake wrote this 1970 novel).  Eugene McCarthy, appealing strongly to young anti-war voters and the left wing of the Democratic Party, sabotaged the reelection hopes of Lyndon Johnson (who Westlake didn’t like), only to fail to win the nomination.

Humphrey seemed too complicit after McCarthy and the murdered RFK, the Democrats had held the White House two terms, the once staunchly Democrat south never forgave LBJ the Civil Rights Act, and the country generally seemed to be coming apart at the seams, both generational and racial.

And thus Richard Nixon eked out a narrow win with a bit of chicanery involving secret negotiations with a hostile foreign power.  Only to crush another left-wing Democrat in 1972, then be forced into resignation over still more chicanery, but Westlake didn’t know all that then.  (If we’re being honest, most Americans probably don’t know all that now.)

The characters in Ex Officio, all part of a sprawling extended family with a former President at its center, like to talk about the politics of their day, and just like us, the discussion disturbs and dismays even while it stirs and stimulates.  The occasion for the first conversation is, of all things, an attempt to fix up ex-President Bradford Lockridge’s lonely widowed granddaughter, Evelyn Canby, with a nice fella, namely Robert.

The President of the college Robert works for, wouldn’t you know, is Sterling Lockridge, Bradford’s brother.  He is married to a kvetchy old liberal (she’d say progressive now) named Elizabeth, who likes Robert (he roomed with a nephew of hers, which is how he got the teaching job, and why she’s trying to fix him up with Evelyn), but loses patience with his stick-in-the-mud centrism sometimes.  Their latest joust begins as they’re making the long drive to Bradford’s estate.

THE TRIP, ALL IN all, took an hour and a half. Their route skirted every town along the way, so that once out of Lancashire they didn’t see another populated area until they arrived at Eustace, which turned out to be a surprisingly sleepy little town that obviously hadn’t allowed the international fame of one of its citizens to alter its style and pace.

Robert sat forward as they drove through town, his elbows on the seat back, and said, “Take away the automobiles and you could make a movie here and call it 1925.” Sterling, at the wheel, chuckled and nodded, but Elizabeth said, “That’s better than calling it 1984.”

At sixty-two, five years younger than her husband, Elizabeth was a tall and straight and slender woman, her face very little lined, her hair gray but well-cared-for, her mental faculties and political impatiences intact.

Robert looked at her grim profile in some surprise. “Do you really think that’s a possibility?”

“More and more every day,” she said, and turned to glance at him; he saw her eyes take in his crewcut.

“I’ll grant you we’re on a swing away from liberalism,” Robert said, “but it’s only a swing. The country is heading for conservatism again, but sooner or later the pendulum will start back. It always does. America has always had its Know Nothing party, and it’s always had its Abolitionists.”

Elizabeth’s expression was cynical. “The right-wingers want to stop the clock entirely, you know, and one of these times they’ll make it. Then the pendulum won’t come back at all. That’s what Orwell was talking about.”

“I don’t see it happening,” Robert said. “I know the political history of this country, and the whole story is summed up in the pendulum swinging between left and right.”

“The reason I worked for Eugene McCarthy,” Elizabeth said, “is because he was the only man in public life to stand up and say that kind of thinking was fuzzy-headed and dangerous. Complacency will do more harm to this country than a full-scale atomic attack.”

Sterling, humor in his voice, said, “Robert, for God’s sake don’t get her started now. She gives poor Brad enough hell every time they meet as it is, for not bringing peace on Earth during his administration.”

“If any one man on the planet could do it,” Elizabeth said fiercely, “it’s the President of the United States. He’s the only one with anything approaching the power, the public attention and the prestige. I’ve told Brad that before, and I’ll tell him again. The hour is too late for politics as usual.”

“See what you’ve done,” Sterling said, looking at Robert in the rearview mirror. “On your head be it.”

“Oh, don’t worry, I’ll be good,” Elizabeth said. “It’s too late for him now, he’s missed his opportunity. I’ve told him that, too, more than once. Besides, this is Robert’s day. I promise I won’t hog the conversation.”

At Bradford’s house, Elizabeth doesn’t hog the conversation so much as guide it, to subjects like NATO (should we junk it?) and Hitler (could it happen again?)

Robert argues the former is mainly a belated reaction to the former, which is true, but of course none of them know the Soviet Union will be gone in a handful of years, replaced by a right-wing capitalist dictatorship with odd religious underpinnings, ruled by a former KGB agent, who will then start looking for ways to reconstitute the old Red Empire under a new name, and may help bring about Elizabeth’s worst nightmare.  The thing about political discussions from an earlier era is that they can seem at once timely and dated.  It will be no different for our era.

Bradford smiled, but he said, “Is that merely a funny joke, or do you mean it?”

“I mean it,” Robert said. “At the beginning of the Cold War, the government knew it had to reassure the people that they were safe, so they—” But at that point he suddenly became aware again of who he was talking to, and faltered. “That is, the way it worked out—”

“That’s all right,” Bradford said gently. “That was before my administration.”

Robert gave him a grateful smile and said, “Thank you, sir. The point was, there was no defense against the Third World War, but the people were going to lose confidence in a government that didn’t promise to defend them, so what they were given was a perfectly adequate defense against the war we’d just won. The whole object of NATO, besides coordinating European military policy, was to give people the comfortable feeling that something was being done.”

Mrs. Canby, who until now hadn’t said a word throughout the meal, suddenly said, “Isn’t that awfully cynical, Mr. Pratt? The people I’ve met in government have tended to be more honest than that.”

Robert turned to her, both in surprise at hearing her speak up and in relief at the opportunity to get out from under Bradford Lockridge’s scrutiny for a few seconds. “I hope it isn’t cynical,” he said. “I don’t really believe that someone sat down in the White House or somewhere and cynically worked out this whole complex global con game to delude the masses. I believe the people generally were scared and worried, and their attitude communicated itself to the decision-makers—”

Bradford interposed, “Who were possibly themselves also scared and worried.”

“Of course,” Robert said, turning back to him for an instant. “People in government I’m sure have the same doubts and the same need for reassurance as people outside. More, even, because they know more about the near misses.” He turned back to Mrs. Canby, saying, “The people in charge did the best they could, but the problem was insoluble because there really isn’t any defense against the kind of weapons that now exist.” He turned to Bradford again, saying, “We aren’t too far from Pittsburgh, are we, sir?”

“About a hundred miles,” Bradford said. “Perhaps a little more.”

“Thank you.” To Mrs. Canby again he said, “Pittsburgh would be a prime target if an all-out war started. Hit Pittsburgh with one of today’s bombs, and everybody in this house would die, and no one would be able to live in this neighborhood for the next seven years.”

Howard said, “There are clean bombs.”

Robert said, “If someone were anxious enough to destroy the United States to launch a nuclear war, I really doubt they would use clean bombs. In fact, the dirtier the better. The people you don’t burn to death you radiate to death.”

Mrs. Canby said, “This is really terrible lunchtime conversation.”

“Exactly my point,” Robert told her. “You would rather believe that our World War Two defenses are adequate, because the alternative is to understand that there isn’t any defense at all.”

Elizabeth said, “But that doesn’t seem to matter, does it? You said a little while ago that there wouldn’t be any Third World War anyway.”

“I was too hasty when I said that,” Robert admitted. “Then I was reminded of Hitler.”

Howard said, “But a Hitler isn’t very likely at this point in history. Not in Russia, anyway. What Bradford said before about fiscal policy is what does it. Russia isn’t poor enough. You have to have an advanced industrial nation that happens to be very poor before you have a people who’ll produce a Hitler, and that just isn’t a description of today’s Russia.”

“I’ll tell you what it is a description of,” Robert said. “China.”

China (before Nixon went there) is the villain of this thriller, not Russia, and nobody in this story knows about the internet (though ARPANET was just starting up when Westlake was writing), or understands asymmetric warfare terribly well, which is why we lost the Vietnam War.  Frankly, a lot of the ideas presented here were out of date within a few years of the novel’s publication, if not before Westlake started writing them down.

It’s hard to know how seriously Westlake, writing as Timothy J. Culver (a pseudonym he came to despise) took any of what he wrote here, but I feel it’s a safe bet some of his disdain for his Culver persona was based around the way Culver kept committing himself to concepts that were almost certainly going to have a brief shelf life, because of the way the world keeps convulsing around us.  Timely fiction isn’t often timeless.

He knew better than to think himself an expert on geopolitics, but had some conflicting perceptions he needed an outlet for, and this was it.  He takes all of the opinions expressed here seriously, because he himself has entertained all of them–just as when you see a Shaw play performed, you have a hard time knowing which character the playwright most identifies with, because he identifies with all of them, and none.  And both men knew nobody ever has all of the truth, that no mind can ever contain it all–making it more utilitarian (and dramatic) to give everyone in the conversation one slice of the philosophic pie.

In this story, he probably does give Mr. Pratt the edge, since Robert is, after all, the virile square-jawed hero required for this form, who wins (then saves) the girl.  But also because as a student of history (one of his creator’s passions), he is best-suited to get across the ideas Westlake is turning around in his head.  (And yet, he’s given him a last name that isn’t exactly a synomym for genius.)

So even though the first meeting with Evelyn didn’t turn out so well, Elizabeth still got Robert’s juices flowing, with her belief in the imminent demise of liberal Democracy– but old football player that he is, he’s not just taking the ball but running with it.

Yes. Now to the subject of the piece: “Eugene McCarthy was probably our only chance for a Fuehrer from the left. With his apparently irreversible defeat, the political left has reverted to its usual rudderless structureless condition, and left the field open for a Fuehrer from the right. The dangers in, say, a successful George Wallace are self-evident, but what are the dangers in a takeover by a Fuehrer from the left?”

Robert took a swig of beer and studied the typewriter moodily. What are the dangers? For that matter, what are the dangers in speculation built on speculation built on speculation? If it were really possible to guess what sort of President a man would be, who would have voted for Lyndon Johnson? The concept of Eugene McCarthy as a Fuehrer from the left rested on such an array of interlocked suppositions that Robert felt himself afraid to take a deep breath, for fear the whole conceit would collapse like a vampire in the sun.

It was Elizabeth Lockridge who should be writing this article in the first place, most of the ideas in it having been generated by her, starting with that ride down to meet Bradford Lockridge three months ago, when Robert’s complacent pendulum theory had decided her his political education urgently needed to be brought up to date. The number of dinners he’d shared with Sterling and Elizabeth since then were uncountable, but at all of them the scene was the same; gentle Sterling watching in quiet amusement while Elizabeth and Robert argued their way through the last decade of American politics.

And slowly she had convinced him of the truth of most of what she believed, though he had ultimately taken her beliefs one step farther, adding his own twist of interpretation and coming up with the idea of the Fuehrer from the left. She it was who had convinced him that the American people were weary of freedom, made nervous by it, ready and anxious to give over their liberties to a man strong enough to demand them, but it was he who pointed out that the same weariness and nervousness were evident on the increasingly radicalized left, which had in 1968 turned to McCarthy not so much as a political alternative as a messiah. “And a messiah,” he’d said, “is simply a Fuehrer we agree with.”

Elizabeth had not agreed, had argued that McCarthy was not a man to allow himself to be used that way, and Robert had replied that he doubted McCarthy would have been given the choice. The whole concept of a Fuehrer from the left remained too contradictory for Elizabeth, however, and at that point they had bogged down, perhaps permanently.

But out of it all had come this article. Although his position as Sterling Lockridge’s nephew’s chum made the teaching profession’s dictum of ‘publish or perish’ not very compelling in Robert’s case, he did try to produce at least two articles a year for the historical journals, one written during the summer and the other during the Christmas recess. This one, relating to material less than a decade old, would probably be more controversial than his previous pieces, essays that he himself had termed “marching in place,” but some journal somewhere would surely make room for an article that raised the concept of a Fuehrer from the left.

The dangers. “Had McCarthy been nominated and elected in 1968,” Robert wrote, “his most vital first move would have had to be to determine his successor, since it seems inescapable that McCarthy himself would not have survived his first term of office. His death—his martyrdom, as it would with justice have been called—would undoubtedly have caused the death of the American electoral process as well, as his increasingly radicalized and isolated governmental apparatus would have been forced to a widening abrogation of liberties for the sake of public order.

“But who would be able to follow McCarthy, aside from another McCarthy, to be gunned down in his turn and followed by another doppelganger, and another, indefinitely? To make one of the obvious choices, to hand the reins to a Weimar Bolshevik like Allard Loewenstein, would simply be to form a caretaker government to await the truly strong man who would of necessity then emerge from the far right.”

Robert stopped again, drank some more beer, and studied that last paragraph. He didn’t like it. He didn’t like the specific references to Loewenstein, who was a living human being, not a chess piece, and therefore more complicated and in many ways more politically valuable than his two-word summation suggested. That was why Robert preferred to work with happenings remote enough for all the participants to be long since dead; with a living man, it was too possible to see oneself in his place, reading this essay.

He made the change in pen, so that the clause in question was altered to read, “to hand the reins to one of the Weimar Bolsheviks surrounding him.” He also disliked that sort of vague phraseology—Paul O’Dwyer, for instance, now became by implication lumped under a definition that Robert didn’t believe applied to him at all—but of the two evils vagueness was lesser to nastiness.

Unless you’re a follower of New York politics like Westlake (and myself, to a lesser extent), you’ll miss the significance of this.  The Annotated Ex Officio is no doubt many  years in the future, so let me catch you up.

Paul O’Dwyer, born in the County Mayo, kid brother of New York City mayor William O’Dwyer, whose short-lived well-liked mayoralty was plagued by police scandals and allegations of mob connections, was a mover and shaker in Gotham politics for many years.   I saw the younger O’Dwyer in person a few times before he passed, in all his silver-maned splendor.  Universally respected and largely irrelevant by then.  But for a time, he had real clout.

He endorsed Eugene McCarthy for President, and was in turn endorsed by him for the Senate.  (They both lost, but at least O’Dwyer got nominated.)

Like Robert (and Westlake, trying to see all sides), I don’t think “Weimar Bolshevik” is a fair appellation for O’Dwyer Óg, but it would be fair to say he was well left of center, while somehow remaining at the heart of city politics, and New York being New York, nobody thought this was so terribly strange, at least not from somebody who talked with a brogue.  (The Irish fight on both sides of every war.)

What’s flat-out ridiculous is to say that if McCarthy had somehow gotten elected President, and then got shot for his pains, that anybody like O’Dwyer would have succeeded him (let alone Lowenstein, who almost nobody remembers now, was good friends with William F. Buckley, and I just realized Westlake misspelled his last name).

He’d have been succeeded by his Vice President, and I see no reason to believe that would have been O’Dwyer, Lowenstein, or any ‘Weimar Bolshevik.’  It would have been whoever McCarthy felt could help get him the Presidency, that he sought again in 1976, and then endorsed Reagan in 1980, because he hated Jimmy Carter so damn much.  Probably someone significantly more mainstream than McCarthy, who could net him a swing state or three.

McCarthy’s left-wing creds were never all that bonafide, you ask me, but he seemed radical at the time Westlake was writing.  Politics is a multi-dimensional interactive continuum with currents that constantly mingle and diverge.  It’s not a straight line running from left to right.  That model didn’t even work during the French Revolution.

And the center is impossible to define, always.  We each make our own.  What’s interesting is how some of us place ourselves not at the center of the political continuum (while still remaining the center of the physical universe), but somewhere at its periphery–because to perceive yourself at the center of politics is to accept responsibility for the mess it’s invariably in.

Those who define themselves as the political center tend to be those who are most interested in the power implied by that position, as opposed to the responsibility–the unmoved movers and shakers.  Those such as The Fuehrers (Westlake’s preferred spelling, since he didn’t use the umlaut, because you can’t make one with a Smith Corona Silent Super).

What is Westlake really trying to say with this idea he presents to us in various forms in a book that is really about an ex-President having a small undetected stroke and consequently losing his ability to critically assess his own ideas, and the potential consequences of his actions?  Bradford Lockridge was never a dictator, nor aspired to be, and even in his altered post-stroke persona, he is little more than a brilliant monomaniac, desperately looking for some way to regain his influence in the world, unable to accept his own obsolescence.

He wants to run for congress, and is told that isn’t done anymore.  His younger brother has allowed himself to be used in an unscrupulous land development scheme, and Bradford pressures him to find a water source in the mountains to make it viable, which would bankrupt everyone involved (this leads to a suicide).

Then, intrigued by Robert’s new Fuehrer idea, and upset by a seemingly false overture from the Chinese government (that helped bring on his stroke), he decides to defect to China because he thinks that will bring about world peace.  He loathes totalitarianism, yet acts as if only his decisions are valid.  Partly because the stroke killed off his superego (call it a conscience if you like), and also because having had so much power, he can’t shake the habit of using it, even after it’s gone.

When you have a  job you like, you want to go on doing it, forever, because what you do is who you are.  If that job is taken from you, you will never be whole again until you’ve regained it, or found something to replace it.  Bradford believes his motives to be disinterested, altruistic, but at heart they are self-centered.  Westlake understands all too well.  He later wrote a much better novel on a similar subject, but that was about a guy laid off from a management job in a paper mill, not a President who lost a reelection bid.  And in many ways, it’s the same thing.  With one major difference–power.

Power corrupts, and what it corrupts is identity.  Your ability to perceive yourself accurately, with a proper sense of proportion, and of your own limitations.  Good or evil, straight or crooked–doesn’t matter.  It requires enormous strength of character to resist the temptations of power, and no one ever resists it completely.

It is a frightening but ever-present reality that sometimes people whose sense of their limits was poor to begin with acquire enormous power–their boundless narcissism appeals to many who are themselves chafing against the strictures of reality, filled with insecurities and social resentments they themselves can barely express.  Such individuals exert a sort of gravitational pull over others who don’t know themselves very well, instinctively seeking a mouthpiece to vent their frustrations.  And then you have a Fuehrer.  Or at least the potential for one.  It all depends on how many answer the call.

And while the term Fuehrer will always be associated with the right, some of the most dangerous and enduring manifestations have come from the left.  Stalin, Mao, Castro, Pol Pot.  But where Robert’s thesis seemingly falls short is that these were all military leaders, professional revolutionaries; men who gained power through armed struggle and intra-party machinations.  Not elections.  I guess there could always be a first time.

I put an early cover for Trollope’s The Way We Live Now up top because Westlake referenced it in another of his obliquely political works (now available for kindle), and that was no mere whim on his part.  He saw a kindred spirit there, a parallel consciousness.  Trollope had likewise seen a trend that bothered him, the deification of the conspicuously wealthy, the so-called ‘self-made’ man. Such a man climbs high and fast up the greasy pole of British politics in that book, only to slide back down to his doom, leaving chaos and confusion (and financial ruin) in his wake.

Something about that scenario bothered Mr. Westlake. In Trust Me On This, he spent much time analyzing the inner workings of an oddly influential supermarket tabloid, with conservative political leanings, and an overweening obsession with celebrity–and funny how things arrange themselves in this world, isn’t it?  Funny how patterns repeat themselves.  Funny how Life imitates Art imitates Life and back again.

So what is Westlake reacting to, here and elsewhere in his writing?  The chaos of the late 60’s.  The sense that everything was falling apart–and then it didn’t.  But what did happen?  The Left surged in significance–and the Right got stronger in response.  We were going to elect McCarthy or RFK, and then it turned out to be Nixon.  Then, after the brief Ford/Carter interregnum, Reagan.  Then Bush.  And another Bush.  Republicans have dominated Presidential politics for decades since the leftward shift of the 60’s.  We haven’t had a Fuehrer yet.  But one new President after another is accused of aspiring to that, and of late, the accusations seem less off-base.

What Westlake fears is imbalance.  The Left and Right no longer being able to communicate, each mistrusting each other to the point where a Fuehrer is preferable to the unpredictability and instability of mere Democracy (assuming it’s a Fuehrer you agree with).   Vacillating from one extreme to the next, and extremes in politics encourage each other, to the point where the worst name you can call anyone is ‘centrist.’

He saw it happen in the 60’s, he saw the rights and wrongs of the Rights and Lefts, and he began to despair that there was any longterm answer to the dilemmas of Democracy.  Democracy would end, if only because people were tired of the uncertainty, yearning for stasis, permanent answers, even if those answers would, by definition, have to be lies, since nothing is permanent, and Life is a state of never-ending flux, as Darwin bleakly informed us.  People would surrender their sacred individuality, their very souls, to politics, from fear of change, fear of The Other–and that, for someone like Westlake, is the ultimate dystopian nightmare.  A world where self-knowledge is thought crime.

And we’re getting close to it, aren’t we?  Grouping each other more and more by how we vote.  I do it myself.  I find it hard not to. And none of this is me saying it doesn’t matter.  It matters more than ever.  But not more than everything else in life.  Not more than yourself.  If you don’t know yourself, your vote will always be wrong, because it won’t be you.

Maybe it was just a passing black Irish mood he was in when he wrote this, but I see it now, happening around me, just as he did then, though in a different form than he imagined (and that would always be the case, no matter who was imagining it).  Aspiring Fuehrers of the Right, of the Left.  Promising what they can never deliver, if only we will follow them blindly–and suckers ready and eager to believe them, begging to be led down the proverbial garden path.  And I don’t know anymore than he did where the path ends.  Or if.

And that’s quite enough of that.  Anyway, I’m going to review some Brian Garfield novels next time.  About crime.  You know the ones.  Unless I do something else first.  Amazing I do anything at all.  And yes, I am still alive, aren’t I?  Happy New Year.  Thanks for listening.

13 Comments

Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Uncategorized

Enconium: Mr. Dortmunder and Oleg, Часть третья (Part 3)

KIC Image 0022

They all trooped in, to view the unprecedented sight of Tiny in two aprons, overlapping, with a meat cleaver in one hand and a long wooden spoon in the other, with a lot of big pots and pans hissing and snarling on the stove.  What he looked mostly like was some darker version of Maurice Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen.  “Soup’s on at six,” he told them.

I wish I knew more about Oleg Zverkov.  I wish I could read testimonials to him (that would be in Russian), learn what he loved about the Dortmunder novels, and what else he loved besides them, get something of the tenor of his personality, the cut of his jib.

I wish he’d been one of my regulars in the comments section, back when I was reviewing the Dortmunders, giving us the Russian take on these books (Ray Garraty being more of a Parker kind of guy.)  I wish we could have swapped insights, interpretations, interests.  I wish most of all that Mr. Westlake himself could have lived to see these books, to hold them in his hands (and I would have made damn sure that happened).  But alas.  Not to be.

Westlake novels are, most of all, about ordinary people doing extraordinary things.  About individuals engaged in an open-ended process of self-discovery.  And thus, they attract readers who are themselves ordinary, yet capable of the extraordinary, and who are engaged in that process themselves.  Seeing the comedy and tragedy of life in equal measure, appreciating both, refusing to let one overwhelm the other.

And why, pray tell, should we not assume that such people exist everywhere, in every nation of the earth?  Nations as populous as China,  as expansive as Russia, as untamed as Brazil, as miniscule as Anguilla, as remote as Papua New Guinea.  This blog has been visited by one hundred and fifty-four such nations as of today.  The only major land masses I’m missing are Antarctica and Greenland.  I’ve got readers on lots of little islands too (Westlake would have liked that.)

And you know, wherever there are people, there are bosses, seeking to control them.  There are organization men, seeking to be controlled.  There are rich pricks, looking to buy us on the cheap.  And there are those who just don’t fit any of the available molds, who don’t belong anywhere, but would like to find some way they could, without selling themselves on the cheap.

And it’s to that last group that Westlake sings most passionately, telling them they’re not alone.  That they can prevail.  If only by dint of sheer persistence, self-knowledge, and pooling their diverse skills.  You can make a sound in this world.  You can be someone to reckon with.  Oleg was one of those.  That I know.

But this is an enconium.  Not precisely the same thing as a eulogy.  Nothing at all like an obituary.  So let’s finish looking at the work to which he gave his last full measure of devotion, and which will be completed, in spite of his departure.

That’s the good news.  Here’s the other kind.  Title page and end papers.

KIC Image 0004

(You know, I’m guessing PC is never going to be a thing in Russia.)

KIC Image 0005

Hide? Where? Nowhere. The shelves were packed full and high. If this were a traditional department store, he could at least try to pretend to be a mannequin in the men’s clothing section, but these discount places were too cheap to have full entire mannequins. They had mannequins that consisted of just enough body to drape the displayed clothing on.

Pretending to be a headless and armless mannequin was just a little too far beyond Dortmunder’s histrionic capabilities. He looked around, hoping at least to see something soft to bang his head against while panicking, and noticed he was just one aisle over from the little line of specialty shops, the pharmacy and the hair salon and the video rental and the optician.

The optician.

Could this possibly be a plan that had suddenly blossomed like a cold sore in Dortmunder’s brain? Probably not, but it would have to do.

As the individual all those legislators most specifically had in mind when they enacted their three-strikes-you’re-out life-imprisonment laws, Dortmunder felt that any plan, however loosely basted together, had to be better than simple surrender. His wallet tonight contained several dubious IDs, including somebody’s credit card, so, for almost the first time in his life, he made use of a credit card in a discount store, swiping it down the line between door and jamb leading to the optician’s office, forcing the striker back far enough so he could push open the glass door in the glass wall and enter.

It wasn’t until after the door snicked shut again behind him that he realized there were no knobs or latches on its inside. This door could only be opened or closed or locked or unlocked from the outside, because the fire laws required it to be propped open anytime the place was open for business.

Trapped! he thought, but then he thought, wait a second. This just adds whadayacallit. Verisimilitude. Unless that’s the color.

The optician’s shop was broad and narrow, with the front glass wall facing the rest of Speedshop, plus white walls at sides and back, liberally decorated with mirrors and with color photographs of handsome people with bad eyesight.

(No mention of any of these beauteous four-eyed people being stereotypically coiffed  Native Americans, nor would they have been in 2001, but nice foreshadowing.  Also product placement.  I’d have awarded extra points for Foster Grants, but that gag wouldn’t play in Petrovka, kemosabe.)

KIC Image 0006

KIC Image 0007

KIC Image 0008

The three were more than an odd couple; they were an odd trio. Little Feather, the former showgirl, Native American Indian, was beautiful in a chiseled-granite sort of way, as though her mother were Pocahontas and her father Mount Rushmore. Irwin Gabel, the disgraced university professor, was tall and bony and mostly shoulder blades and Adam’s apple, with an aggrieved and sneering look that used to work wonders in the classroom but was less useful in the world at large.

As for Guilderpost, the mastermind looked mostly like a mastermind: portly, dignified, white hair in waves above a distinguished pale forehead. He went in for three-piece suits, and was often the only person in a given state wearing a vest. He’d given up his mustache some years ago, when it turned gray, because it made him look like a child molester, which he certainly was not; however, he did look like a man who used to have a mustache, with some indefinable nakedness between the bottom of his fleshy nose and the top of his fleshy lip. He brushed this area from time to time with the side of his forefinger, exactly as though the mustache were still there.

(I can’t quibble in the least regarding Guilderpost and Gabel.  Little Feather?   Ehhhhh….  women are under-represented in these illustrations.  One might argue they’re under-represented in the novels, but that’s another subject.)

KIC Image 0011

“Give me the flashlight,” Geerome said, and a huge white light suddenly glared all over them. Benny, wide-eyed, astounded, terrified, could still make out every crumb of dirt on the cheeks of Geerome and Herbie, the light was that bright, that intense.

And so was the voice. It came from a bullhorn, and it sounded like the voice of God, and it said, “Freeze. Stop right where you are.”

They froze; well, they were already frozen. The three Indian lads standing in a row in the grave squinted into the glare, and out of it, like a scene in a science-fiction movie, came a lot of people in dark blue uniforms. Policemen. New York City policemen.

KIC Image 0012

(Ho ho ho.  Merry Heistmas.  The Perfect Crime, at last.)

KIC Image 0013

(Villainy receives its just retribution.  From other villains, but that’s nitpicking.)

KIC Image 0014

Just one more.  And so fittingly, it happens to be—

KIC Image 0015

KIC Image 0016

KIC Image 0017

The thing is, I started in life as a stunt driver.”

Anne Marie, surprised, said, “Really?”

“You may have seen the one,” Chester said, “where the guy’s escaping in the car, they’re after him, the street becomes an alleyway, too narrow for the car, he angles sharp right, bumps the right wheels up on the curb, spins sharp left, the car’s up on two left wheels, he goes down the alley at a diagonal, drops onto four wheels where it widens out again, ta-ran-ta-rah.”

“Wow,” Anne Marie said.

“That was me,” Chester told her. “We gotta do it in one take or otherwise I’m gonna cream the car against some very stone buildings. I liked that life.”

(I must confess, I kind of like that there’s not a single picture of Anne Marie in any of these books.  Though I’ve only seen two of J.C., and one of May.  None of Gladys Murch.  Maybe in some of the earlier volumes I don’t have.  I think we can say women are better represented in Westlake’s fiction than they are in these books.  Though rich blondes in hot cars do pretty well.  Or do I mean that the other way around?)

KIC Image 0018

KIC Image 0019

(This image I could have done without.)

KIC Image 0020

(Not this one, though.)

KIC Image 0021

KIC Image 0023

“The shoes, Rumsey.”

He blinked at them. There they were, neatly placed on the floor, midway down the corridor on the right. “I didn’t do that, mum.”

“Well, of course not, Rumsey.” Now she clearly didn’t know what to think. “Mr. Hall put them out there.”

“Oh.”

“Don’t you know why, Rumsey?”

“Take them to the shoe repair?”

“Rumsey, I can’t believe you have been a butler for—”

“We never had nothing about shoes at the embassy, mum.”

She looked skeptical. “Who polished the ambassador’s shoes?”

In that instant, he got it. The boss puts the shoes in the corridor; the butler mouses through, later at night, to take them away to his pantry and polish them; then the butler brings them back and puts them where he found them, only now gleaming like bowling balls. So why hadn’t he known that? And who did polish the ambassador’s shoes?

“His orderly, mum,” Dortmunder said, floundering for the word. “Military orderly. All that sort of thing. Tie bow ties, polish shoes, all that. Specialist, mum.”

“Well, that’s certainly a different way to do things,” she said. “But we may never understand the eastern Europeans. Somehow, it’s all Transylvania, all the time.”

“Yes, mum.”

“Well, do them now,” she said, with a graceful gesture shoeward. “And assure Mr. Hall you’ll understand your duties much better from this point forward.”

“I will, mum,” Dortmunder said.

Buddy leaped forward, raising the sack, as Mark (green ski mask, with elks) and Ace (Lone Ranger mask) jumped to grab Hall’s arms, while Os (rubber Frankenstein head), who was supposed to grab Hall’s ankles, pointed instead at the butler and cried, “Who’s that?”

“The butler,” Mac said, apologetic even though it wasn’t his fault.

“Grab him!” Mark yelled, he already having his hands full with the belatedly struggling Hall, Mark and Buddy and Ace now tugging the sacked Hall toward the trailer.

Up to this point, the butler had just been watching events unfold, interested but not involved; as though he thought of himself as merely a bystander. But now, when Os lunged at him, shouting, “Come on, Mac!” the butler backed away, putting his hands up as he cried, “Hey, don’t call me Mac, I’m the butler, I’m not in this.”

“He’ll raise the alarm!” Mark shouted from halfway into the trailer.

Mac, having already figured that out, leaped forward to join Os in grabbing the butler by both arms and dragging him in his employer’s wake.

The butler struggled like mad: “What are you doing? I got work here! I got things to do!”

What, was he crazy?

KIC Image 0026

(The final image.  Which in this volume is on the same page as the table of contents, which for reasons I could not guess, is at the back of each book.)

In spite of having studied, at scattered moments of my existence, French, Spanish, Latin, and Irish (never got around to Klingon), I am a lifelong and inveterate monoglot.  (Every bit as unappealing as it sounds.)

And thus, to my lasting regret, I will never be able to read Oleg’s translations.  I can’t savor the unique spin he puts on Westlake’s phrasings, see how he solves all the inherent problems of making him accessible to my fellow monoglots in his homeland (though I shouldn’t assume they have just the one language simply because they don’t have mine).

Like anybody who cares about fiction, and the novel in particular, I have read quite a bit of Russian literature in translation, notably the superlative work of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.  I fell in love with Moliere in high school (oh grow up) thanks to the rhyming translations of Richard Wilbur, and I’d know nothing at all about Gaelic poetry, or be able to enjoy Flann O’Brien’s An Beal Bocht, without those people who straddle diverse linguistic realities, build bridges between them, so that we can see what our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world, and across the ages, have thought and felt.  Skilled translators are rare and precious beings.

(And two of them know what Trump and Kim Jong Un discussed in that meeting, which is more than anyone else can say.  Hmm, which one you think has an accident first?  Do they even bother with accidents in North Korea?  I guess we’ll find out.)

Why do I do all this?  To share my love of Westlake with others who have read him.  Why did Oleg do all he did?  To share Westlake with fellow Russian speakers who’d read him, but (in his estimation) not clearly enough.  He obviously felt something had been lost in translation, and he wanted to try and provide it.

This would be worthwhile in itself, without the quality bindings and paper, without the beautiful evocative artwork (just the image of Tiny in the kitchen alone…!!!!!!)  He could have written his translations, had them printed cheaply, distributed them via the internet, and through personal connections.  (I don’t know what books he translated for a living, perhaps Ray would.)

But in communicating his passion to Alexander, and (in his function as editor of these volumes) to Mr. Turbin, he made this so much more than just improving on existing translations.  And in a fair world, he’d have lived long enough to see all the books come out, and a while after.  But he was a Westlake reader.  And what’s more, a Dortmunder reader.  So what are the odds he thought this was a fair world?

It’s a world where you take your shots, as best you can, while you can, and he took his.

Good shooting, Tovarishch.

2 Comments

Filed under Donald Westlake novels, John Dortmunder novels

Enconium: Mr. Dortmunder and Oleg, часть вторая (Part 2)

KIC Image 0005(2)

“It just looks small.  To me it looks small.”

“Dortmunder,” Stan said, losing his patience, “it’s a tugboat.  It’s the safest thing in New York Harbor.  This boat has pushed around oil tankers, passenger liners, big cargo ships from all over the world.”

But not recently.  Labor strife, changes in the shipping industry, competition from other eastern seaboard ports; what it all comes down to is, the New York City tugboat is an endangered species.  Most of the sturdy little red and black guys with the hairy noses and the old black tires along the sides are gone now, and the few still struggling along, like the hero of a Disney short, don’t have much of a livelihood to keep them going.

There’s nothing new, let alone revolutionary, about publishing editions of books you don’t have the rights to.  It’s happened to some of the most famous and popular books ever written.  It even happened to Shakespeare, after his death–that’s why we still have Shakespeare’s work.  Because a small group of friends and admirers (in a time before copyright) collected and published it, in a limited deluxe edition.  You may have heard of it.

firstfolio2.png

Long after most of you reading this are gone (and perhaps myself as well), the rights of the literary estate of Donald E. Westlake will expire, and anyone with access to a printing press (if such things even exist by then) will be able to publish any or all Westlake novels in any quantity or format they choose.  (Going by e-books I’ve seen, some of his short stories are already in the public domain, though none of his best ones).

From that time onwards, whether the books stay in print or not will depend entirely on whether the interest in reading them, originals or translations, still exists, passed from one generation to the next, across the centuries.  The one thing that keeps fiction in print after an author’s death is passionate readers.  And it was passionate readers who committed this unprofitable act of minor theft.  Relating to 14 novels about a unprofitable pack of minor thieves.

I find great symmetry in this.  I still think copyright laws exist for good reason, and must be enforced strongly.  But of all the storytellers who ever lived, surely this one would be most inclined to turn a blind eye when it came to theft committed in a good cause.  Or even just for the sheer fun of it.  Anyway, no doubt he and Oleg have already discussed it over a few bourbons, if Mr. Westlake had any bones to pick.  Speaking of which–

KIC Image 0003(4)

In this case, the end paper illustration relates to the first part of the omnibus.  (Though I can’t say I recall this precise scene.)

KIC Image 0004(3)

(This one I remember.  How are things in Tsergovia, Grijk?)

KIC Image 0006(3)

KIC Image 0007(3)

(Oh no!  Dortmunder is going to be tortured by Zippy the Pinhead’s evil round-headed cousin!)

KIC Image 0009(3)

(Kelp on the prowl, seeking a saintly femur.  Probably my favorite illustration from this book.)

KIC Image 0011(3)

(The stalwart men of the Continental Detective Agency on the job.  After eating drugged pizza, see up top.)

(Your guess as good as mine. Haven’t read this one in a while.)

KIC Image 0014

(So this guy gets a nod, and J.C. envisioning the great nation of Maylohda does not?  There is no justice.)

KIC Image 0015

KIC Image 0016

(Finishing up with a nice bit of heraldry.)

Time for one more?  Why not?  Or as they say in Russia–

KIC Image 0001(6)

KIC Image 0002(6)

(I don’t think Dortmunder and Gus Brock were dressed like this at the Carrport Mansion–where nobody was supposed to be–but what the hell.  Looks cool, don’t have to draw whole faces.)

(And now Dortmunder is in his usual shabby suit.  Continuity with regards to personal appearance and dress is an occasional problem with these editions, but with art like this, am I complaining?)

KIC Image 0006(4)

(I like the Superman insignia on Wally’s jacket, although it does make me wonder if in some parts of the world, he is considered to be the true hero of the novels he appears in.)

KIC Image 0007(4)

(My vote’s for this Wally!)

KIC Image 0008(3)

(Dead.  Solid.  Right.)

KIC Image 0009(4)

(You all know how I think Max Fairbanks looks.  I suppose that in present-day Russia, it might not be politique to portray him that way.  Still, way too distinguished looking–though I must admit, there is a reference to him being a brandy drinker.  Also, there are Stars of David in the I-Ching?  Who knew?)

KIC Image 0010(2)

(Dortmunder lifted his gaze from his reproachful knees, and contemplated, without love, the clothing Andy Kelp had forced him into. He said “Who wears this stuff?”

“Americans,” Kelp told him.

“Don’t they have mirrors in America?”)

KIC Image 0011(4)

(Two Golden Carriages.)

(Laugh clowns, laugh.)

KIC Image 0015(1)

(For the last laugh shall be ours.  In a Westlake novel, anyway.  Hey, maybe even in real life!  What’s the best that could happen?)

TO BE CONCLUDED–

2 Comments

Filed under Donald Westlake novels, John Dortmunder novels

Enconium: Mr. Dortmunder and Oleg

So. The project started as a child of love. The publisher, Alexander, and the translator, Oleg, decided to do a definitive Dortmunder collection. 14 novels in 7 volumes with illustration, beautifully bound, on white expensive paper, deluxe run of 70 copies, sort of a fan club edition. Alexander didn’t buy translation rights, Oleg translated for free, since it was a hobby, Alexander printed books just for fun, since these 70 copies couldn’t possibly to bring any money. He had a full time job, he has a small printing house to supplement his income. It wasn’t made for profit. They advertised on a few message boards, got a few subscribers, hired an illustrator X (name to come).

The cover design came from Soviet SF book series ‘Ramka’, highly popular then. The illustrator, a pro, was the only one who got paid. The print run of the first book sold out fast. They made a second, then a third. Among buyers were wholesale sellers, who did most of the sales at book markets, and subscribers from various Russian cities, not only from Moscow.

After the third volume was done, the tragedy happened. Oleg the translator died.

Ray Garraty, via private email. 

I can sometimes imagine people thinking to themselves, as they scan my interminable ramblings, “So who do you imagine yourself to be here, the world’s greatest Donald Westlake fan?” You don’t really want to know who I imagine myself to be, so as the saying goes, don’t ask.  But if anyone ever does, I will have my answer ready.

I am not the world’s greatest Donald Westlake fan.  Not even close.  I am the world’s greatest Donald Westlake blatherskite.  It is not at all the same thing.  Oleg Zverkov was the world’s greatest Donald Westlake fan.

That’s his picture up top, alongside a sampling of his great project, still ongoing as I type this.  Deluxe omnibus volumes of all the Dortmunder novels, in Russian translation (done by himself up to the time of his death), with extensive black and white illustrations (done by Andrey Turbin who is still around, I believe.)

Working as an English to Russian translator, sometimes under the pen name Oleg Smorodonov (I don’t see why translators can’t have pen names too), Oleg discovered Westlake, and through him, the world of John Dortmunder. I feel a pang saying that I never corresponded with him, and will  never be able to discuss his special devotion to Dortmunder, but feel confident in saying this much–they spoke to him.  In the way that certain books will speak to certain readers.  Those books you were waiting all your life to read, and here they are, waiting for you.  That is an experience I am well familiar with.  Requires no translation.

The Dortmunders had all been available in Russian translation for years, but foreign publishers, constrained by the profit motive (much like the domestic variety) do not always want to pay for the best translation possible, let alone high quality artwork, paper, bindings, and this goes double for genre stuff. He looked at the editions available and they were not to his satisfaction.  (Perhaps he thought the English language editions he’d read were not beyond improvement either.)  He imagined something better.  Worthy of the czar of star-crossed heisters. He envisioned a heist of his own.  And for a heist, you need a string.

His friend Alexander had, as you see above, a small printing business, and a love of doing specialty stuff just for the challenge. In a series of conversations I will assume involved intoxicants (because Russia, and because Westlake), Oleg hooked him on the idea of doing the Dortmunder editions he had dreamed of, a limited run, priced just high enough to pay their expenses–a diverting but fiscally unrewarding venture.  I suppose this would technically make Oleg the Kelp of the story.

A break-even heist, at best. Appropriate, when you consider Dortmunder’s overall career stats.  They were in no position to obtain the rights, so they didn’t try.  Russia has long had a contentious relationship with western copyrights–but this wouldn’t be stealing an author’s brainchildren for profit.  It would be abducting them for love, taking them on a grand adventure, returning them not only unharmed but enriched into the bargain.  You see the difference?  I bet Jimmy Harrington would.

Materiel was easily available to a man in Alexander’s walk of life–nothing was outsourced.  Specialists were recruited. Oleg put the best of himself into his translations and the editorial work as well, while Alexander covered the more technical aspects, as well as sales. (These days, Alexander is doing all of it.)

The books started to come out, were eagerly snapped up by enthusiasts and collectors.  The small print runs sold out quickly.  When Ray first heard about all this, he assumed the orders would mainly be coming from Moscow.  But in fact, a lot of folks out in the provinces wanted copies.  Dortmunder spoke to them too.  They also wanted to hold these books in their hands.

And then Oleg died, very suddenly.  Before the task was completed.  Alexander vowed to finish the project in his friend’s honor, as best he could.  Then run off some more copies of each for people who missed out the first time.  And that’ll be it.  He won’t be doing any more Westlakes.  It was Oleg’s passion that inspired him.

And that’s the story.  By no means unique–you may remember, a while back I showcased a Russian collector’s edition of Anarchaos here, which is also pretty great, but for sheer artisan prowess, I don’t think these Dortmunder volumes can be beat.  Anywhere.  Though we should not forget the Parker graphic novels and the illustrated edition of The Hunter from Darwyn Cooke that Westlake gave his okay to before his passing.  Cooke also died young, unexpectedly, before he’d done everything he wanted to do there.  So it’s not some posthumous copyright-related curse.  Just a strange coincidence.  The world is not simple enough to understand.

When Ray told me about all this, showed me some of the artwork, I knew I had to hold at least a few of the physical volumes in my hands.  Never mind that I can’t read them.  I wanted to have them.  Took a while, but three of these sacred icons are in my possession now.

While I can’t evaluate the literary quality of Oleg’s translations, I can see just by the way certain key pages are arranged, that every effort was made to give people not only the letter but the spirit of Westlake.  To get it right.  What else would you expect from the world’s greatest Donald Westlake fan?

So.  Want to see the books?  I ran some scans.  I only have Volumes 3, 4, and 5, which cover two novels apiece.  Oleg lived long enough to translate most of the series, but the remaining novels will be done by someone else.

Although the books are printed in Cyrillic, title and author are clearly rendered in Latinate typography (useful if they ever make it to libraries outside Russia.)  I could just tell you which books they are.  I’m not going to.  If you’re a hundredth the fan Oleg was, you’ll twig to it quick enough just from the artwork.  If you can’t, you need to brush up your Westlake.  Start reading him now.

Without further ado.

Vol 3.

 

KIC Image 0009(1)

KIC Image 0001(3)

KIC Image 0002(3)

(Not quite how I’d envision J.C. or Tiny.)

(Much better!)

KIC Image 0007(1)

(Where there’s a Wilbur, there’s a way.)

KIC Image 0009

KIC Image 0010

(The concluding page.  On to the next book.  Which is–)

KIC Image 0022

(First the endpaper illustrations–then a rather magnificent two-pager inside the book.  I’ll have to stitch those together. )

(A lot more impressive in the physical volume.)

KIC Image 0003(1)

(Some pages have decorative illustrations, not directly related to the story–and also, at times, footnotes,  not part of the original book, presumably there for readers less familiar with aspects of American history and culture.  Which includes quite a few Americans, but most of them don’t read Westlake.)

KIC Image 0002(2)

KIC Image 0001(4)

KIC Image 0001(2)

(If at first you don’t succeed….)

KIC Image 0002(4)

KIC Image 0003(3)

(The meat packing district is a lot more densely packed than this, but nitpicking.)

KIC Image 0006(2)

(The best-laid schemes…..)

KIC Image 0007(2)

(At times, Mr. Turbin likes to show us what the characters are seeing in their heads, instead of just dreary literalism, and I think Westlake would approve.)

KIC Image 0008(1)

(Literal, but not at all dreary.)

KIC Image 0009(2)

KIC Image 0011(1)

(“Now, Tim Jepson!  Now!”)

KIC Image 0012(1)

(I would have preferred Dortmunder ranting at a TV set, with this parting image on the screen, and perhaps a dish of May’s famous tuna casserole on the table, but that would be a lot more work, and I bet they didn’t pay Turbin that much.)

Overall, I think this is the best-illustrated novel of the six I’ve seen, but much more good stuff to come.  On reflection, maybe I better devote one article apiece to each volume.  So a three-parter.  What’s the worst that could happen?  Aw shucks, another spoiler.  Can’t seem to help myself.

11 Comments

Filed under Donald Westlake novels, John Dortmunder novels